Only 150 prisoners at a time involved in release scheme

Thu, May 3, 2012, 01:00

ONLY 150 prisoners at any one time will be involved in an early-release project that will see a total of 1,200 doing community service over a three-year period, the Dáil has heard.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said he had repeatedly been asked about prison overcrowding and the Government was determined to address the issue.

Highlighting plans for prison space development as part of a three-year strategic plan, Mr Shatter said a pilot “community return project” started last October, with 85 prisoners on early release doing supervised community service. The project is for prisoners “who pose no threat to society”. Four of the 85 had been returned to prison for failing to meet the conditions. It was now intended to roll the project out nationally after a full review.

Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Dara Calleary, who raised the issue, accepted the Minister’s language that prisoners “will be deemed not to be a safety risk”. But “balls get dropped”, and he asked the definition of a “safety risk”. Referring to non-violent prisoners, he asked if that meant prisoners who were non-violent while serving their sentence or whose offence was non-violent.

He also asked if victims would be involved in the process. “The last thing we need is for the victim of a crime to come across the perpetrator” while they are on community service in the victim’s neighbourhood.

Mr Calleary said awareness of the needs of victims’ families “needs to permeate the entire system”, particularly with a formalised pre-release programme. He called on the Minister to “champion the role victims should play in sentence management. We need to reimagine the role victims should play in sentence management.” Mr Shatter said the programme for government committed to legislation on protections for victims.

He said some media had misrepresented the issue as “suddenly releasing 1,200 people from our prison service”.

He said it would be a structured temporary release programme, “substantially better than what we have had previously”.

The programme “is in fact a saving to taxpayers”. It would impose some additional obligations on the prison service but “will reduce the costs of the prison service”, the Minister said.